Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5
Margaret Small is not your typical protagonist. Seven year-old Margaret was “Vanished” (her words) in 1947 — left at St. Mary’s Hospital in Canterbury by her grandmother who never saw her again. St. Mary’s was an institution for people who were unwanted — those with disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome, polio, or “moral imbecility.” Though we never get a stated diagnosis for Margaret, she appears to have been “slow” or “simple minded.” When we meet her in 2015 at the age of 75, she is (still) unable to read or write.
In a dual timeline, the 75-year old Margaret recalls her past in a set of chunks: the sudden drop off at seven — scared, and confused; a confusing sexual experience when she is 22; sudden (scary) freedom at 32 when she is told she can leave the hospital and live in a small group home with the help of a Social worker / carer. As her social worker helps her come to terms with her life, he draws an analogy between people with disabilities and people who are gay 50 years before when that was illegal. There are several long lectures about how people with disabilities were seen as having illnesses (like being gay) and how they were put away for that reason.
While the end is ultimately uplifting, I found the (longish) story somewhat depressing and a little simplistic in terms of how her life could have easily been much better. The story did highlight how people were shunted to these institutions with no hope of “release” and no effort made to help them overcome whatever difficulties they had. While the story is not new to me, it was particularly upsetting to lump in people who literally could not care for themselves (severe mental retardation or extreme physical disabilities) with people who simply did not confirm to social norms at the time (usually due to some kind of sexual preference or action that upset someone else).
Thank you to Embla Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Nov 16th, 2022